Imagine what a lawyer does on a given day: researching cases, drafting briefs, advising clients. While technology has been nibbling around the sides of the legal career for a while, it’s hard to assume those complex tasks being done by a robot.

And it’s those complicated, personalized tasks which have led technologists to incorporate lawyers in a broader category of jobs which might be considered pretty secure from a way forward for advanced robotics and artificial intelligence.

But, as we discovered in a recent research collaboration to research legal briefs using a branch of artificial intelligence referred to as machine learning, lawyers’ jobs are so much less secure than we thought. It seems that you just don’t have to completely automate a job to fundamentally change it. All you want to do is automate a part of it.

While this will be bad news for tomorrow’s lawyers, it could possibly be great for his or her future clients – particularly those that have trouble affording legal assistance.

Technology might be unpredictable

Our research project – wherein we collaborated with computer scientists and linguists at MITRE, a federally funded nonprofit dedicated to research and development – was not meant to be about automation. As law professors, we were attempting to discover the text features of successful versus unsuccessful legal briefs.

We gathered a small cache of legal briefs and judges’ opinions and processed the text for evaluation.

One of the primary things we learned is that it will possibly be hard to predict which tasks are easily automated. For example, citations in a transient – equivalent to “Brown v. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483 (1954)” – are very easy for a human to pick and separate from the remaining of the text. Not so for machine learning software, which got tripped up within the blizzard of punctuation inside and outdoors the citation.

It was like those “Captcha” boxes you’re asked to finish on web sites to prove you’re not a robot – a human can easily spot a telephone pole, but a robot will get confused by all of the background noise within the image.

A tech shortcut

Once we found out find out how to discover the citations, we inadvertently chanced on a strategy to automate probably the most difficult and time-consuming elements of legal practice: legal research.

The scientists at MITRE used a strategy called “graph evaluation” to create visual networks of legal citations. The graph evaluation enabled us to predict whether a transient would “win” based on how well other briefs performed once they included a specific citation.

Later, nevertheless, we realized the method could possibly be reversed. If you were a lawyer responding to the opposite side’s transient, normally you would need to search laboriously for the fitting cases to cite using an expensive database. But our research suggested that we could construct a database with software that will just tell lawyers the most effective cases to cite. All you would want to do is feed the opposite side’s transient into the machine.

Now we didn’t actually construct our research-shortcut machine. We would want a mountain of lawyers’ briefs and judicial opinions to make something useful. And researchers like us wouldn’t have free access to data of that kind – even the government-run database referred to as PACER charges by the page.

But it does show how technology can turn any task that is amazingly time-consuming for humans into one where the heavy lifting might be done at the press of a button.

Sewing machines didn’t replace seamstresses but they modified the job considerably.
AP Photo/Clarence Hamm

A history of partial automation

Automating the hard parts of a job could make an enormous difference each for those performing the job and the consumers on the opposite side of the transaction.

Take for instance, a hydraulic crane or an influence forklift. While today people consider operating a crane as manual work, these powered machines were considered labor-saving devices once they were first introduced because they supplanted the human power involved in moving heavy objects around.

Forklifts and cranes, after all, didn’t replace people. But like automating the grind of legal research, power machines multiplied the quantity of labor one person could accomplish inside a unit of time.

Partial automation of stitching machines within the early twentieth century offers one other example. By the 1910s, women working in textile mills were now not answerable for sewing on a single machine – as you would possibly today on a house sewing machine – but wrangling an industrial-grade machine with 12 needles sewing 4,000 stitches per minute. These machines could robotically perform all of the fussy work of hemming, sewing seams and even stitching the “embroidery trimming of white underwear.” Like an airline pilot flying on autopilot, they weren’t sewing a lot as monitoring the machine for problems.

Was the transition bad for employees? Maybe somewhat, but it surely was a boon for consumers. In 1912, women perusing the Sears mail order catalog had a alternative between “drawers” with premium hand-embroidered trimming, and a less expensive machine-embroidered option.

Likewise, automation could help reduce the associated fee of legal services, making it more accessible for the many individuals who can’t afford a lawyer.

Legal scholar Miriam Cherry discusses workplace automation with Elizabeth Tippett.

DIY lawyering

Indeed, in other sectors of the economy, technological developments in recent many years have enabled firms to shift work from paid employees to customers.

Touchscreen technology, for instance, enabled airlines to put in check-in kiosks. Similar kiosks are almost in every single place – in parking lots, gas stations, grocery stores and even fast-food restaurants.

At one level these kiosks are displacing paid labor by employees with unpaid labor by consumers. But that argument assumes that everybody could access the services or products back when it was performed by an worker.

In the context of legal services, the various consumers who can’t afford a lawyer are already forgoing their day in court altogether or handling legal claims on their very own – often with bad results. If partial automation means an overwhelmed legal aid lawyer now has time to take more clients’ cases or clients can now afford to rent a lawyer, everyone can be higher off.

In addition, tech-enabled legal services may help consumers do a greater job of representing themselves. For example, the federal district court in Missouri now offers a platform to assist individuals filing for bankruptcy prepare their forms – either on their very own or with a free 30-minute meeting with a lawyer. Because the platform provides a head start, each the lawyer and consumer could make higher use of the 30-minute time slot.

More help for consumers could also be on the best way – there’s a bumper crop of tech startups jostling to automate various kinds of legal work. So while our research-shortcut machine hasn’t been built, powerful tools prefer it is probably not far off.

And the lawyers themselves? Like factory and textile employees armed with latest power tools, they could be expected to do more work within the time they’ve. But it must be less of a grind. It might even free them up to satisfy with clients.

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